CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: AVATAR (2009)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(While their human bodies lie in cylindrical machines in a sleep state, MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES awaken as tall, blue alien creatures on a lush forest world called Pandora)
MA: Cool! I always wanted to be tall and blue!
LS (pops open a beer): Yeah, that’s great.
MA: And I see you’re going for the blue beer-belly look.
LS: (belches): Can’t beat it.
MA: I’ll race you to the top of this gigantic tree.
(They scurry up the sides of the tree quickly and reach the top)
MA (hanging from a vine): Why don’t you tell the folks a little about our movie this time around?
LS: Okay. This weekend we went to the see much-hyped new movie by James Cameron, AVATAR. This is the first new movie Cameron has directed since the Oscar-winner, TITANIC (1997).
(Voice off-camera shouting): I’m on top of the world!
(MA & LS look off into distance.)
MA: It’s that DiCaprio guy again. He’s really hyping SHUTTER ISLAND these days. Well Cameron did direct some documentaries about the real Titanic and another submerged ship, the Bismarck.
LS: I know, but I don’t care about sunken ships. And those weren’t big Hollywood features. This is his first BIG movie in 12 years.
There’s been buzz around AVATAR for a long time now. Everyone has been saying that this movie is going to revolutionize CGI effects and 3-D cinema. It’s been hailed as some kind of big event in movie-making. And it cost something like $500 million to make.
MA: That’s a lot of money!
LS: Tell me about it. So with all this buzz behind it, I walked into AVATAR expecting to be disappointed. No movie can live up to that kind of hype. The thing is, AVATAR is a pretty good movie.
Avatar’s plot isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It’s the whole “invader goes native” storyline. You’ve seen similar stuff in everything from A MAN CALLED HORSE (1970) to DUNE (1984) to DANCING WITH WOLVES (1990), to name a few. A foreigner comes to a strange place, usually to exploit the inhabitants, but instead comes to identify with them and become their savior. This plot is not particularly clever or fresh. But Cameron does a decent job using it for his own needs.
MA: I agree. The plot is nothing new, and I’ve heard that already used as a criticism against this movie. But the thing is, as I’m guessing you’re going to point out, AVATAR has so many other things going for it, it would be ludicrous to pan this movie because its storyline isn’t original.
LS: How many movies are all that original these days, anyway? We’re talking about the era of remakes and “reimaginings.” Compared to that, AVATAR seems fresh.
MA: Even though most great movies do have terrific scripts and stories, there have been plenty of exceptions to this rule, and AVATAR is one of them. Don’t get me wrong, AVATAR does not suffer from a lousy script. It’s just as you said, it’s far from original. But it’s still a powerhouse movie.
LS: In AVATAR, Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a wounded Marine who ended up in a wheelchair. When his twin brother, a scientist about to be shipped off to the distant planet Pandora, is killed, the military comes to Jake and asks if he’ll take his brother’s place. The reason why they do this, even though Jake is not prepared for his mission, is because it’s all about DNA.
With the promise that he’ll get legs that work, Jake takes them up on their offer and is put in suspended animation and shipped off across the universe.
Once he gets to Pandora, he finds that there is a creature that was created mixing his brother’s DNA and that of the natives of the planet, a race of seeming savages called “the Na’Vi.” With new technology, he will be able to inhabit this new body with his mind, and attempt to infiltrate the aborigines of this planet.
Why? Well, as is almost always the case, it’s all about the money. Pandora has treasure troves of a metal called Unobtainium (what a silly name), just beneath its surface. A big Earth corporation wants to mine this ultra-expensive mineral, but the pesky inhabitants of the planet always get in the way. For some reason, these creatures don’t want their planet raped and ripped apart by beings from another world. Go figure!
It’s Jake’s job to gain the inhabitants’ trust, and convince them to give their land over to this Earth corporation (represented mainly by Giovanni Ribisi at his most unctuous). The military is there to blow things up if peaceful means don’t work. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is the head military guy here, and he’s itching to use high-tech weapons on the rather primitive planet-dwellers and show them who’s boss.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, from James Cameron’s classic ALIENS (1986).) She’s interested in Pandora and its inhabitants for scientific reasons and wants to learn from the creatures and deal with them peacefully.
At first, Jake is gung-ho to help Colonel Quaritch, a fellow Marine, but as the story goes on, and Jake actually makes contact with the creatures, he realizes more and more that what the greedy corporation wants to do is wrong, and he eventually sides with the natives. (You might call this part of the plot, a “no brainer.”)
It doesn’t hurt that certain events take place to make the creatures believe he is some kind of “chosen one” that they have been waiting for. At first, they distrust Jake and want to kill him, but then they decide to give him a chance to prove himself. After several initiations into their culture, Jake finds himself having to make a major decision. Is he on Earth’s side in this conflict, or the Na’Vi?
Like I said, this “infiltrator who has a change of heart” storyline has been done before countless times, but Cameron just uses this plot as a jumping off point and gives us a lot more than that.
First off, there are the visuals. Cameron not only creates a planet and its flora and fauna – a fully developed world – but he places us right in the middle of it. 3-D has come a long way, and Cameron takes full advantage of the technological advancements he helped push forward. Once again, as in movies like CORALINE, the 3-D effects aren’t wasted on things jumping out at you. Instead, they’re used to deepen the terrain, to make Pandora seem even more real. To give depth to everything we see. That, mixed with the abundance of color on this new world, creates for a sometimes astounding visual experience. I sure hope you finally got to see a movie in 3-D, Michael, because that’s a big part of what makes AVATAR so good.
MA: But then who would write about the movie from the perspective of those moviegoers who didn’t get to see the movie in 3-D? Someone else, that’s who! Because I DID see it in 3-D, and I was impressed. I highly recommend to the folks out there: find a theater with 3-D and see it the way it was designed to be seen. It truly is an amazing experience.
I agree with you 100% about the depth perception and the abundance of color. That’s always been my knock on 3-D in the past, how the effects were wasted on those silly “jump out at you” moments which generally had little to do with the movie’s plot. As you said, here, the 3-D helps create the world of Pandora in a way that couldn’t be done in a “normal” print. Watching this film was almost like admitting “Yes, this is the next wave of motion pictures.” I want to see more movies that look like this, and not just films about alien worlds. The 3-D effects were THAT good!
LS: There was a lot of hype about the visual splendor of this movie, and, for the most part, it lives up to the hype.
MA: I agree.
LS: Then there’s the cast, which is pretty decent. Worthington – who was the ONLY reason to see TERMINATOR: SALVATION – shows us he wasn’t a one-trick pony by giving us a solid protagonist to guide us through a new world. He’s at times vulnerable, cocky, soulful, and defiant. He’s not the greatest actor who ever lived, but he is up to the demands this movie makes of him, and acquits himself well.
MA: I agree with you about Worthington. I liked him a lot here, but— and this isn’t a knock on his performance— I did like him better in TERMINATOR: SALVATION.
LS: Yep, but TERMINATOR: SALVATION wasn’t a very good movie, which actually gave Worthington a real chance to shine.
Sigourney Weaver, who never disappoints, gives a strong performance as Dr. Augustine.
MA: Can you believe that it’s been 30 years since the original ALIEN (1979)? And Weaver still looks pretty good! Not bad for someone who’s 60! Speaking of ALIEN, Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for that movie and a host of others, just passed away on December 17. Very sad.
LS: Yeah, that is sad news. ALIEN left a huge impression on me as a kid. He also wrote the screenplays for movies like DEAD AND BURIED (1981), THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (which he also directed, from 1985), and LIFEFORCE (1985). He was a talented guy.
But back to our review. We were talking about the cast of AVATAR. Giovanni Ribisi is perfect as the sleazy businessman with just one god – the almighty dollar.
MA: I liked Ribisi too, although didn’t Paul Reiser play almost the exact same role in Cameron’s ALIENS?
LS: In one of the movie’s best performances, Stephen Lang is a force of nature as Colonel Quaritch. At first, he seems sympathetic, but the more he’s allowed to run wild on the natives, the more despicable he becomes. It’s not just another mission for him, it’s personal, and he wants to make the Na’Vi bleed. He wants to break them, and he has no intention of backing down.
MA: I thought Quaritch was strictly cliché. I’m weary of these close-minded renegade military types. Surely we can have some heroic military leaders in the movies once in a while?
LS: I agree. But Lang takes the role and runs with it. I think he pumped as much life into what could have been a complete cliché as possible. He at least makes this tough-as-nails character very watchable.
MA: True, you can’t take that away from him.
LS: But the one performance that leaves even Lang in the dust is Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, the female Na’Vi warrior who becomes Jake’s mentor, and later on, his lover, and who is such a three-dimensional (pardon the pun), fierce, real character, that she transcends the CGI effects to become the most powerful and sympathetic character onscreen. Every time Neytiri is onscreen, she’s the center of your attention. She’s simply remarkable. Her last big role was as Uhura in the new J.J. Abrams STAR TREK movie, but I think this is the movie that’s going to make her a star.
MA: Maybe. I mean, you’re right about her performance, but since she’s a CGI effect throughout, and we never really see HER, I’m not so sure it’ll make her a star.
LS: Okay, okay. But after this performance, she SHOULD be a star. How’s that?
The supporting characters are just as strong, from Michele Rodriguez (who is always pretty cool) as a pilot with a mind of her own, to Wes Studi and CCH Pounder as Nytiri’s parents – the chief of the tribe and their spiritual leader, respectively.
MA: I agree with you here again. I particularly enjoyed the work of CCH Pounder, who we saw recently as Sister Abigail in ORPHAN (2009).
LS: She was always really good on the FX series THE SHIELD, too. Man, I miss that show.
Personally, I am very critical of CGI effects. I think they’re often overused, and more often than not, they look very fake. But I forgot all about that in AVATAR. The computer animation may not be perfect in every scene, but for the most part it maintains the illusion that you are on an alien world, and makes you believe. I am sure CGI will just keep getting better and better, but so far, AVATAR is the best use I’ve seen of it.
MA: I agree. I kept thinking, the way Pandora looked was the way Skull Island SHOULD have looked in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). Now, while the Skull Island scenes were the best part of Jackson’s uneven remake, had he had this technology, KING KONG might have overcome its weak New York City scenes.
LS: AVATAR is being touted as not just a movie, but as an event. James Cameron has put years of his life, and the astounding amounts of money at his disposal, into giving us something big, and it’s a lot of fun.
Sitting there as an adult watching AVATAR, I came as close as I ever have to the way I felt as a kid watching the original STAR WARS for the first time, back in 1977 (I refuse to call it A NEW HOPE). I felt the wonder of having an alien world brought to life. But, I’d go so far as to say that AVATAR is an even bigger deal.
MA: I don’t know if I’d go that far. Certainly, in terms of CGI special effects, you could make the argument that AVATAR is the best we’ve seen so far, but in terms of the overall package, I was blown away much more by STAR WARS in 1977 than I was by AVATAR now. STAR WARS was a rousing story packed with adventure and thrills the likes of which I had never seen before. I wouldn’t describe AVATAR as rousing. Sure, it gets more emotional towards the end, but as a whole, it’s more of a cerebral vehicle than STAR WARS.
LS: Doesn’t matter to me. I’m not a STAR WARS fan (ALIEN actually left a much bigger impression on me).
Although, as a kid back in ’77, I was pretty impressed with the movie when I first saw it. But, you’ve got to admit, the storyline of STAR WARS wasn’t exactly original, either.
MA: No, not at all, and I don’t think scripts are George Lucas’ strong point either, but STAR WARS had an energy about it that really made me believe in that story, in that entire galaxy far, far away. Plus it had Peter Cushing.
And in terms of CGI special effects, though AVATAR may be the best I’ve seen, what has come before it has been relatively close. Even KING KONG in 2005: those special effects were fantastic. We saw similar technology in WATCHMEN, though not as impressive. But back in 1977, before STAR WARS, what did we have? You had 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968, and those effects were impressive, but other than that, what? LOST IN SPACE and STAR TREK on TV? STARS WARS was WAY, WAY ahead of its competition in terms of special effects at the time.
But that being said, I loved AVATAR and highly recommend it. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and coming in December, when the year is almost done, that’s saying a lot. It’s not a horror movie, so I can’t say it’s the best horror film I’ve seen this year, but in terms of science fiction, I did like it better than DISTRICT 9 and WATCHMEN, two other movies this year which I really liked, so I’m singing praises here for AVATAR.
LS: Something to keep in mind when we do our BEST OF 2009 column in a few weeks.
MA: Yeah, you could make the argument that you should see this movie for its 3-D effects alone. They’re THAT good!
Sure, the plot isn’t original, but you’re not going to be bored or disappointed with it. And while there are spots in the middle where I thought the pacing slowed down a little, for a movie that’s over 160 minutes long, it went by fast.
LS: Yeah, I saw the plot twists coming a mile away, and every time a new creature was introduced, you knew it would have a “big moment” later on. But I didn’t find the movie boring at all. It kept me riveted throughout.
MA: I completely bought into the Pandora world and allowed myself to become lost in its splendor. Watching AVATAR was an immensely pleasurable experience, and I can’t say it enough: go out and see this movie in 3-D! It’s an amazing experience!
LS: Other asides: Worthington as the Avatar-Jake looked an awful lot like Edward the Vampire from NEW MOON to me.
MA (shrieks in horror): Noooo!!!
LS: Something about the face. And Nytiri reminded me an awful lot of the tiger woman from the old Hammer movie, VAMPIRE CIRCUS (fangs and all), from 1972. In fact, with their feline features and stripes, the Na’Vi are very much like blue tiger-people. All of the other creatures are pretty amazing too, especially the bird/dragon creatures they ride as they soar through the skies.
MA: Yeah, the creatures are very cool.
(A big blue MONKEY swings by on a vine, wearing a shirt that says “OLD NA’VI”)
LS: I think the biggest testament to Cameron’s achievement here is that after awhile, you start to lose interest in the “real” world of soldiers and scientists, and get lost in the scenes among the Na’Vi. Just like Jake Sully, you yearn to leave the human world behind and embrace the world of Pandora. And that’s the highest compliment I can give James Cameron here.
MA: I had some nitpicks too. Though I first want to say you’re dead on about the VAMPIRE CIRCUS comparison! Nytiri and the tiger woman from that classic Hammer Film could be sisters!
This film takes place in like what? 2154 or something? And yet all the people in the film are wearing clothes that we wear today. I think styles would have changed in 150 years.
Also, as blown away as I was by the film’s effects, watching this story of an alien race created by CGI, albeit amazing CGI, it still felt to me like I was watching a cartoon, and because of this, it’s just that much less effective, less real, less resonating, than if I were watching real actors. I mean, I loved this movie, but I wasn’t all that moved when the story heated up towards the end because I felt like I was watching an adult cartoon, and that’s just not the same, in terms of emotion, as watching people.
LS: I don’t know. There were times when I looked at the faces closely and felt they were a bit cartoony. But most of the time I bought that they were real beings. The effects were good enough to make me forget I was watching CGI effects and just get sucked into the story. Although I did find it convenient how all of the Na’Vi characters had vines that just happen to cover certain parts of their anatomy. That kind of bummed me out. At least WATCHMEN had the balls to show ALL of Dr. Manhattan. If certain characters are supposed to be comfortable in their nudity, then they should be shown that way. Not sanitized for our protection.
MA (laughing): I knew you’d get to this point sooner or later. I’m amazed you waited this long! I understand your point, but I’m sure James Cameron didn’t want an “R” rating on this film.
To be honest, the fact that I found some scenes “cartoony” may have less to do with the effects and more to do with the writing. I recently watched UP! (2009), the Disney/PIXAR movie, and that was a film that did resonate with me in terms of emotion. Now, I knew I was watching a kid’s movie, and the animation looked like a kid’s movie, but the story moved me almost to tears in some places. AVATAR did not. So, perhaps with sharper writing, an adult cartoon could resonate more with me, I don’t know.
LS: You big baby! If you want to cry so badly, go chop an onion.
MA: I do know watching AVATAR was a tremendous amount of fun, and I hope people go out and see it, because it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
LS: I agree. I totally expected to hate this movie and slam it for all of its hype, but, surprisingly it won me over. Go see this one. You’ll be glad you did.
(MA and LS leap from the tree onto the backs of two bird/dragon creatures and fly off towards a full moon.)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares